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Edwards supporters go to Obama

by Jordan Green

Almost 50 state political leaders who supported former North Carolina Senator John Edwards before he abandoned his bid for president made a coordinated show of support for Sen. Barack Obama the day after his opponent pulled off a decisive win in the Pennsylvania primary.

The announcement seemed calculated to counteract Sen. Hillary Clinton’s recent capitalization on Obama’s ostensible condescension towards white, rural, working-class voters, given that Edwards made poverty and the plight of low-wage workers hallmarks of his campaign – themes that were later embraced by the two remaining contenders. The hefty set of endorsements also signals that the state’s Democratic establishment sees a benefit to being aligned with a candidate that has enjoyed wildly enthusiastic support from newly-mobilized voters.

“We specifically wanted to do this today, after the Pennsylvania primary, because now attention shifts to North Carolina, which has the largest primary contest before the convention,” said Ed Turlington, a Raleigh lawyer who chaired Edwards’ national presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008, in an April 23 conference call with reporters.

Turlington, who advises corporations on legal issues and represents clients in their dealings with all levels of government, also said he believed Obama would “bring a whole new way of doing business in Washington. Senator Obama doesn’t take [political action committee] money or money from lobbyists.

Other notable North Carolina leaders endorsing Obama include former NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Henry Frye, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, NC Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird of Carrboro and NC Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro, along with US Reps. Mel Watt, David Price and GK Butterfield. Turlington said that although he has talked to Edwards a number of times in the past two weeks, he did not know whether the former North Carolina senator was considering joining his former backers in support of Obama.

Harrison said she had decided to redirect her support to Obama on the morning she heard Edwards had dropped out of the race.

“His longstanding opposition to the Iraq war has a lot of resonance to those of us who are anxious to bring that conflict to an end,” she said. “There is such excitement among voters who were not all that fired up about electoral politics in the past. A lot of us in the Democratic Party think he’s going to be great at the top of the ticket, and he’s going to bring a lot of energy to the election in November.”

Harrison said she found herself impressed with Obama’s candidacy when she went down to South Carolina in January to campaign for Edwards.

“And it wasn’t liberal elites campaigning for [Obama]; it was youngsters, laborer and all kinds of folks,” she said. “It was clear at that point that his campaign had caught fire. I actually had a hard time getting into one of his events when I tried to hear him speak, because the crowds were so big.”

Unlike Pennsylvania, where support for Obama was largely concentrated in the Philadelphia area and the state capital of Harrisburg, the Illinois senator is expected to win North Carolina easily. That forecast is based on strong support from blacks – who comprise more than a third of registered Democrats here – coupled with equally vociferous support in liberal enclaves that dot the state from Asheville to Durham.

A widely publicized comment earlier this month by Obama at a San Francisco fundraiser expressing the view that rural, white, working-class voters have become “bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations” appears to have eroded support from that segment of the population. North Carolina’s vocal black trade-union movement, together with the dramatic off-shoring of the state’s textile industry under President Bill Clinton, brings into question whether the cultural dynamics that played into Sen. Clinton’s favor in the Midwest will carry over to the North Carolina contest on May 6.

Earlier this month, the Greensboro-based Teamsters Local 391 held a press conference in front of a shuttered Hanesmill plan on South Stratford Road in Winston-Salem challenging Clinton for trying to distance herself from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which her husband signed into law in 1993. Labor advocates tend to view the agreement as enabling corporations to more easily shift manufacturing jobs to lower-paid workers in Mexico.

Turlington acknowledged no anxiety that the “bitter” comment might fatally weaken his candidate’s popularity with North Carolina voters.

“As North Carolina voters learn more about Senator Obama, they’re going to be impressed,” Turlington said. “He’s been involved in helping working people all his life. He’s fighting for policies to help working families of all types. He’s very much a leader. He’s been out front on issues like predatory lending, dealing with healthcare and the current loan and housing crisis. He has specific proposals to help people go to community college.”

The Clinton campaign had hailed the Pennsylvania victory as a “turning point in the nomination contest,” with a memo released the following day citing the outcome as “fresh evidence that Hillary is the candidate best positioned to beat John McCain in the fall.” The memo alluded to her rapport with moderate- and low-income workers, arguing that “with concerns about the economy paramount, voters decided that Sen. Clinton was the candidate they trusted most to deal with job loss, the housing crisis and healthcare.”

The Clinton campaign cited exit polls indicating that the candidate won voters in union households by 18 points, along with another important demographic, white women, who favored her by 32 points.

“Sen. Obama’s failure to do well raises questions about his ability to win the large, swing states that Democrats need to win in November,” the memo added. “Hillary’s voters form the coalition needed for Democratic success in the fall battleground states: women, Hispanics, older voters, working-class voters and Catholics.”

Harrison brushed aside the suggestion that Obama’s estrangement from rural, white, working-class voters might prove to be a fatal weakness in the November general election.

“I think he will appeal to them certainly more than Senator McCain,” she said. “I think the poll numbers reflect that. Senator Clinton’s negative campaigning might have appealed to them, but in a general election, when you put McCain and Obama head to head on the issues, voters will find that Senator Obama has a superior platform on access to education, access to healthcare and access to jobs.”

Harrison said she was perplexed by the knock on Obama that he is an elitist.

“I have no idea where that’s coming from,” she said. “I really don’t know. She seems to be a grittier kind of politician. It just sort of baffles me. He went straight from the top of his class at Harvard to being a community organizer in Chicago.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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